Does Nine Wins Matter?

With a win over Georgia in the Gator Bowl, Nebraska would reach the nine win mark for the sixth straight year.  For some, this is a crucial threshold that must be met.  But does nine wins really matter?  Does it hold the same level of excellence that it did 10 or 20 years ago?  And should it be the standard for Nebraska’s football program?

I know what some of you are saying, nine wins isn’t the standard that it used to be – assuming Nebraska becomes bowl eligible, they will play at least 13 games a season compared to the 11 or 12 games per year back in the 80s and 90s.  Prior to the 2006 season, most teams played an 11 game regular season schedule.  For the most part, about 20% of all FBS teams (or Division I, if you prefer) reached nine or more wins in a given season.  After 2006?  The extra game means that an extra 10 -20 teams (about 7 – 10% of FBS schools) make it to nine wins.  In other words, you can win a lower percentage of games and still get to nine wins.  

Additionally, with Nebraska’s current non-conference scheduling model (one game against a BCS team, one game against a mid-major, and two cream puffs) and some of the weak teams in the Big Ten, Nebraska should be able to rack up six or seven wins without breaking much of a sweat.  In other words, nine wins is a baseline expectation, not a cause for celebration.  

I understand all of that.  But I truly believe that nine wins matters, and should continue to be the standard by which Nebraska teams are judged. For me, it breaks down like this:

0 – 5 wins:  A complete failure of a season.  Somebody should be fired.

6 – 8 wins:  A disappointing season.  Staff changes may be necessary.

9 – 10 wins:  An acceptable season.  There are a few exceptions, but I will almost always be happy with 9 wins.

11 – 12 wins:  An excellent season.

13 or more wins:  A season to remember.

So why do I think nine wins today is as impressive – if not more so – than it was in 1980s or 1990s?  The simple answer is that college football has changed a lot in the last 20 – 30 years.  Nebraska is not out in front of the pack like they once were.  How so?

The 85 player scholarship limit has spread the talent out to more teams, creating parity.  Gone are the days when a handful of teams had all of the talented players.  While there is a difference in the level of athlete in power conferences versus the mid majors, that disparity has decreased over the past decade as teams like Boise State, TCU, Houston, Northern Illinois, and others have shown that you don’t have to be a traditional power to make an impact.

The physical advantages Nebraska once enjoyed have eroded.  Back in the 80s, few schools had a weight room or strength program to match what Boyd Epley was doing.  Today, dozens of schools can boast a weight room the size of an airplane hangar.  That is not a knock on the current strength and conditioning staff, it is an acknowledgement that other schools have caught up and are employing the same training and techniques that once gave Osborne’s teams an edge.

The coaching has not been as good since Osborne retired.  Without getting into the Bo-liever / Bo-leaver debate, I think we can all agree that the level of coaching (both head and assistants) has not been as good off since Osborne and his longtime staff retired.  That is not necessarily a knock on the coaching abilities of Solich, Callahan, and/or Pelini (or the lack thereof).  Instead this is meant to acknowledge that the program has not been run by a legendary, Hall of Fame caliber coach since the 1997 season.

Nebraska’s conference schedule is harder.  Let’s face it, the Big Ten has been quite dreadful over the past few years.  But as bad as the B1G has been, it is still a stronger conference than the Big 8 of the 1980s and early 1990s.  Back then, the Big 8 was Nebraska, Oklahoma, and the six dwarfs.  Sure, every so often Colorado or Missouri, or maybe an Okie State or Kansas would put together a decent season, but for the most part Osborne’s teams rolled up nine win seasons by destroying inferior schools like Kansas, Kansas State, and Iowa State.

Don’t believe me?  Let’s look at based upon games against conference foes ranked at the time they played Nebraska.  Pay attention to the uphill trend with the Big XII and Big Ten:

  • During his 23 seasons in the Big 8, Osborne faced an average of 1.87 ranked conference teams per year.
  • In his two seasons in the Big XII, Osborne faced 2 ranked conference foes per year.
  • Frank Solich’s teams squared off against 2.83 ranked conference foes per year.
  • Bill Callahan’s teams had it relatively easy, only seeing 2.25 ranked conference teams per year.
  • Through the 2013 season, Bo Pelini’s teams have faced an average of 2.83 ranked teams in conference each year.  Throw out the 2013 season (with only one game against a ranked conference opponent) and his average jumps to 3.2 ranked teams each year.

Let’s look at it from a different perspective:  In Osborne’s 25 seasons, he faced three or more ranked conference foes four times – 16% of his seasons. (73, 76, 88, 95).  In the 16 seasons since Osborne retired, NU has faced three or more ranked conference teams nine times (56%).  Only once did Osborne face four ranked conference foes in a season (1973, his first season).  In the last four years it has happened twice.

To be fair, Osborne’s teams typically played a much tougher non-conference schedule than any of his successors.  Osborne’s teams faced an average of one ranked non-conference team every year (not including the bowl game).  Solich, Callahan, and Pelini combined have faced an average of 0.44 ranked teams in the non-conference (excluding bowl games).  Also not factored in is the fact that Osborne’s teams were more likely to win games against ranked opponents than those of Solich, Callahan, or Pelini.

The bottom line:  While today’s teams do have an extra game, Nebraska is seeing both a higher amount of ranked teams and (as Nebraska has regressed in talent and coaching over the past 10-15 years) is also seeing more teams of a similar caliber than Osborne’s teams did.

So why does nine wins matter?

Nine wins matters from a program perspective – how your team is viewed nationally by fans and media alike.  When Nebraska was racking up nine win seasons in the 80s and 90s, the program was viewed as a model of consistency and dominance.  That perception slipped when Solich went 7-7 and completely fell off the table when Callahan went 5-6.  To be able to string together a run of nine win seasons like Pelini has done shows stability, growth, and recovery.  While there is clearly room for improvement, and the fan base wants more, a nine win season does matter and should be appreciated.

Rejected Tom Osborne Tributes

The legendary Tom Osborne is retiring as Nebraska’s Athletic Director at the end of the year.  Saturday marks his final home football game as a University of Nebraska employee.

It is impossible to overstate the impact that Osborne has had as a coach, mentor, teacher, U.S. Congressman, Athletic Director, and statesman.  Lots of fans have been wondering how the Huskers will properly honor a man who has meant so, so, so much to the football program, athletic department, University, and state over the past 50 years.

The popular suggestion is to have Osborne lead the Huskers onto the field as part of the famed Tunnel Walk, but I just don’t see that happening.  Osborne has never been a person who wants or needs the spotlight – as Bob Costas described him after Osborne’s first National Championship “a man who has studiously avoided self-aggrandizement in an age all too devoted to style over substance”.

So how can the Husker program and fans properly honor T.O.?  Here are some suggestions:

  • During the game on Saturday, have the offense run nothing but option to the short side of the field, fullback traps, and two play-action passes to a wide open tight end.  Just like the old days, Nebraska scores 80 on Minnesota.
  • Bo Pelini has his jaw wired shut and takes five tranquilizers to mimic Osborne’s stoic sideline presence.
  • During halftime, the Cornhusker Marching Band forms the shape of the iconic T.O. profile
  • Barry Switzer shows up and tells Osborne he gets “one free swing”.
  • Former Big XII Commissioner Dan Beebe shows up offering “two free swings”
  • Former Athletic Director Steve Pederson returns and Osborne gets to kick him in the groin.
  • Post game comedy show with Tom and Larry the Cable Guy.  Tom wears this.
  • After every touchdown, the Huskers go for two.
  • Adidas provides “throwback” sideline attire for the coaching staff.
  • Have Herbie Husker tackle the Minnesota Gopher mascot.  Herbie then pulls the head off of his costume to reveal…it’s Tom Osborne  (thunderous applause).
  • Lawrence Phillips, out on a temporary parole, publicly apologizes for being a black eye on Osborne’s sterling legacy.
  • At halftime, a rocking chair is brought out to midfield.  Tom is invited to sit in the chair, and then receives a lap dance from the Scarlets dance team.
  • Tom invites the 86,000 fans over to his house for a “righteous kegger”.  His wife Nancy is seriously pissed, but still makes enough ‘lil smokies for everyone.
  • Jason Peter and Grant Wistrom sneak up behind him and dump a Gatorade bucket of ice water on him.
  • Tom is presented with one of each of the 19 fish he named in 30 seconds.  Fittingly, the fish are wrapped in newspaper columns that questioned him or his team.
  • As a thank you for not hiring Osborne after the 1978 season, Nebraska allows Colorado to take three scholarship players to improve their woefully bad football team.
  • Tom is serenaded by Joyce of the Sidetrack Band.  Tom leads the crowd in a rousing chorus of “Screw the Sooners” before doing a solo version of the Sidetrack Band’s NSFW version of “For The Longest Time”.

Or, more likely:  HuskerVision runs a video montage of classic moments and old clips, including several tributes from college football legends (Keith Jackson, Bobby Bowden, Switzer, etc.).  After which, the fans give him a long and loud standing ovation while Tom squirms uncomfortably in the spotlight.  After the applause dies down, Tom makes a self-deprecating comment with his trademark dry wit.

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